The Lottery of Life in 19th Century Settle

The Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire drove huge technological and social changes throughout the 19th century. Despite this, life could still be very difficult, especially for the working classes. Survival was something of a lottery, determined by the class you were born into. Regardless of background, some people seemed to live a charmed life, while others faced endless difficulties.

Recent research into the 19th century burial records from Settle’s Holy Ascension church reveals a wealth of fascinating stories of life and death in a small town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.

Play the Lottery of Life game

The game guides you through some of the hazards you could face as a 19th century resident of Settle. These people all really existed. Their lives were researched by local historian Sarah Lister as part of the Graveyard Research Project at Holy Ascension Church, Settle.

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Despite the triumphant reports of the expanding British Empire and the industrial revolution, life in the 19th century was much more hazardous than it is today, especially for the working classes.

  • There was a constant threat of incurable disease, with limited medical knowledge and no NHS.
  • Relationships were also an unknown — marriage was a permanent union, whatever happened, and there was no reliable contraception.
  • Business and profits came well before health and safety, which brought about numerous fatalities in the expanding industrial towns and railways.

As a result, survival was far more of a lottery.   Your lottery ticket was, in many ways, decided by the class you were born into.

How would you have survived if you had been alive in those days?    The interactive game that accompanies this exhibition guides you through some of the perils and hazards you could face in the 19th century from the perspective of a Settle resident.  All of these people really existed and were discovered through the research into the graveyard at Holy Ascension Church, Settle carried out by local historian Sarah Lister.

You can either explore the exhibition using the buttons below and then learn about the lives of the individuals featured, or play the Lottery of Life game as often as you like, making different choices to see what you can find out about each resident.

Surviving childhood

The greatest life hurdle in the 19th century was infancy. One in five children died before they reached the age of five including little James Clemmy. In the first 15 years at Settle graveyard, 42% of burials were for children aged five or under. Midwifery and survival rates didn’t improve until after the first World War.

It was regarded as a woman’s ‘purpose’ to procreate, as children could carry on the family business and look after their parents in old age. As so many babies died, wives were expected to ensure the family line by spending their lives giving birth and bringing up children. Of those buried in the Holy Ascension graveyard, Elizabeth Boothman had the largest family – she had 14 children and would have been pregnant for 10.5 years.

One in five women was pregnant before marriage – they had proved their fertility. Some women, like Mary Cardus and Mary Ann Hartley, may have used their pregnancy to find a husband, though not always with success.

Approximately one in 20 mothers in the graveyard died in childbirth, irrespective of class. Mary Lambert, the vicar’s wife, is an example. There is some evidence that working-class mothers led more active lives and were therefore stronger and better prepared for childbirth.

After infancy, your life chances depended on your class. Money helped to provide healthcare, plenty of food and a good education.  Before the introduction of the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which was the first to create compulsory education in England and Wales for children aged between five and 13, charities and ‘National Schools’ run by the church provided free places, which some children might attend between shifts at work. Some schools, including Giggleswick School, provided a few places for local children to ‘better’ themselves. John Armitstead was one such lucky lad.

Marriage (for better or for worse)

The British Empire expected and relied upon men and women to marry and reproduce. The government analysis of the 1851 census concluded that the rate of reproduction was sufficient to populate families in the expanding colonies.

In theory, women received an income and protection in return for providing heirs. However, marriage was a permanent arrangement, regardless of what happened, so there were many unhappy marriages, including that of poor Mary Bowman. For the wealthy, marriage helped to declare status, business and political prospects, as women and their assets became their husband’s property. As a result, independently wealthy women, such as the Jarry sisters, might choose not to marry. One in five people remained single, and the average age for marriage was 25, just as now.

The average length of a marriage before one spouse died was just 14 years. It was acceptable for a man to marry again to produce more heirs, but not the other way round, so there were many more widows than widowers. Young women might be vulnerable to advances from much older men, as Betty Buck could tell you.

It was acceptable, after a suitable period of mourning, for a woman to continue her husband’s occupation. If they were lucky, widows were left an inheritance, like Alice Bowskill, who needed the money to bring up nine children. Sophia Wainwright was a well educated widow, who chose to run a school for young ladies.

Divorce was very uncommon in this period, and confined almost entirely to those who could afford it, as it was extremely expensive and required an private Act of Parliament. As it entailed loss of wealth and property, obtaining a divorce was not an acceptable norm in the Victorian era. Unsurprisingly, mistresses, desertion and bigamy were common, as Alfred Pierson unwittingly discovered.

Putting food on the table

There was no welfare state in the 19th century so you had to have a job to earn money to survive. If you had an education you could get an apprenticeship and a better job. If you couldn’t work, you couldn’t live, something that Henry Hayton couldn’t cope with. Traditionally, men stayed in the same area as their parents and many followed their father’s occupation, or one within the same class.

The railways transformed life in Settle. The building of the railways provided plenty of work, often for men from other parts of the country, such as John Owen and Thomas Burton. Railways made it easier to move elsewhere to find work which helped Robert Chapman. Many families from Settle moved to Lancashire to find work in the cotton mills.

Women were expected to marry, keep house and raise children. There was a stigma against spinsters as they could become a financial burden to their families. To earn money they could spin (so became a ‘spinster’), or run a boarding house as Mary Clapham did. If they were educated, spinsters could be a governess, like the Jarry sisters. It was fairly unusual for a woman to run a business, unless she was a widow, or prepared to make a stand for women’s rights, like Charlotte Robinson.

Journalist WR Greg commented on spinsters as ‘the unnatural number of redundant women, which is indicative of an unwholesome social state, and is both productive and prognostic of much wretchedness and wrong.’ — 1844

Lives cut short – accidents and disease

In 1851, the life expectancy of men was 45, and only 28 in London. A third of deaths were due to ‘zymotic diseases’ — contagious diseases caused by a ‘microzyme’, the most common being small pox, typhoid, scarlet fever, measles, cholera, whooping cough and diphtheria. There were epidemics across the country usually originating in crowded cities and ports caused by poor sanitation and lack of hygiene. The overcrowded lodging houses were a hotbed for both crime and the spread of disease; Settle’s Rodger Preston was one of those affected.

Health and Safety was a lower priority than profit, although communities often had an ‘Inspector of Nuisances’. Many died as a result of unfortunate and unnecessary accidents involving drowning, shooting, railways and horses. Dr Edwin Septimus Green was one such casualty. On the railways one man was killed by per mile of line built including John Owen and Thomas Burton.

There was little effective medical treatment, but you could pay for laudanum for pain relief if you could afford it. The medical services were unregulated until the 1880s, so you just paid for the doctor you felt was best, and he did whatever was required to make a living. Even though surgeons were able to do basic operations, infection would often kill the patient afterwards because of the lack of hygienic procedure. Settle solicitor John Cowburn died in this way. PC Thomas Blanshard had to deal with a tragic murder case just before his most unfortunate end.

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